Animal welfare vs conservation: the case of China’s tigers

March 13, 2008

An unfolding saga in South Africa highlights one of the many divisions that are emerging between those dedicated to animal welfare and those devoted to saving creatures in the wild.A South China tiger known as Tiger Woods, father of a 11 day-old male cub, is seen in the Free State province of South Africa December 4,2007. It is the first time the animal has been born outside China, the Save China’s Tigers organization said on Sunday.The cub was born healthy and larger than normal at 1.2 kilograms on a wildlife conservation reserve, the group said in a statement. The cub was being hand-reared and would be taught to hunt for itself. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA)

South Africa’s National Council of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) is once again in a flap over the methods used in a fascinating project that seeks to “rewild” rare Chinese tigers so their offspring can then be released into a natural setting.

It is a project that I followed closely when I was based in South Africa — I covered the arrival of the first cubs in Pretoria — and that I now track from afar in Dallas.

The project, run by the charity Save China’s Tigers and set on a 33,000-hectare ranch in South Africa’s Free State Province, basically tries to “teach” the big cats to hunt for themselves and other survival skills. It is the brainchild of an energetic Chinese woman named Li Quan.

The hope is that the adult tigers will impart their acquired skills to their offspring which can then be released into the wild in China. Estimates and data are scanty but there are only believed to be around 10 to 30 individuals left in the wild of the Chinese sub-species of the tiger family, also known as the South China tiger.

A South China tiger known as “Tiger Woods”, one of fewer than 100 South China tigers in existence, tries to make a kill at the David Tang Tiger Breeding Center at Philippolis outside Bloemfontein July 11, 2007. The tiger is one of four that were brought into the 33,000-hectare (81,540-acre) Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa’s Free State province since September 2003 to mix in a wild environment, breed and brush up on their hunting skills before being returned to their native habitat in China. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA)Two sets of cubs have been flown to South Africa and while one male named Hope has died one pair successfully bred last year, producing a male South China tiger cub. The reserve also has a five-year-old male for breeding purposes.

This is the backdrop to this tale which one would think would have the whole-hearted support of the animal-loving community. It doesn’t.

The problem in the eyes of some animal welfare groups is that the tigers are being trained to hunt through the use of live animals such blesbok, a kind of antelope, which are released into a 40-hectare camp.

South Africa’s SPCA claims in a statement on its website that “Life Feeding – It Happens Here” and has taken the issue to the courts.

“It is a spurious argument that carnivores need to be fed animals, live. Not in captivity they don’t!,” the SPCA, which regards the practice as cruel, says.

As cubs they were allowed to have a go at live chickens and I recall the SPCA raising a fuss about that as well. I recall thinking at the time what was more important, a few chickens or the fate of a wild species and an iconic one at that whose plight could help draw attention and save others?

In the case of blesbok one could argue that as a wild African antelope they can only expect to come to a sticky end anyway — that is the typical fate of herbivores in the real world. And how else are the tigers expected to learn how to hunt? Would it not be cruel to cast them into the wild with no survival skills or lock them up for life in a zoo?

And if this experiment works it could help save wild populations of other large predators — animals that are finding they are less and less welcome in an increasingly crowded world.

Or does the SPCA have a good point? Is it just plain cruel to feed live animals to predators in a simulated setting?

This story does point to one of the many forks in the road where animal welfare groups and some conservationists part company. Other “green divisions” include broader battles that are being waged over the sustainable use or commercial exploitation of wildlife and those who oppose it, often on cruelty grounds.

What do you think?


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The SPCA make a valid point that in captivity, live prey is unnecessary. They unfortunately overlook the point of the project, which is to eventually end said captivity and release these tigers into the wild.

In our zeal to uphold animal rights, are some of these activists not overlooking the right of a wild animal to learn and engage in natural predatory activities, albeit in a protected environment in the short term, to ensure the continuation of its species?

Posted by UrbanCritter | Report as abusive

This is one other example to show that humans are interfering too much with the natural processes. We cannot go about protecting all species from carnivores. Carnivores preying on other animals and herbivores fighting to stay alive is the natural evolutionary procedure.

The captive tigers need to learn that for them to survive. Of course, it is unfortunate for these selected batches of herbivores that they are used for live killing by the tiger. But I don’t see how this can be avoided. Unfortunately we cannot have a predator simulation program for the carnivores to practice hunting just like how there are flight simulators for pilots.

Posted by Vijay | Report as abusive

in my point of view, it is not hopeless to save the south china tier. during world war II, there were only 40 siberian tigers. now there’s about 500 in the wild. those who think it’s too late to save the south china tiger need to know about the siberian tiger’s progress.

Posted by matt | Report as abusive

The evolutionary purpose is passed now. Nature is cruel.

Posted by Deen in Beijing | Report as abusive

I honestly think what NSPCA is saying isn’t valid at all. These antelopes are not thrown in small cages with some hungry captive tigers who don’t know how to kill them and take a long time to kill them. These antelopes are put in a huge 40ha camp with 1 or 2 tigers.

40 ha is really big, as big as some reserves in Africa, and thus the antelope actually have the space to run away from their predators(tigers), there is fair chance for both the prey and the predators. The tigers must learn how to stalk, ambush and kill their prey with 1 neck bite in order to successfully hunt 1 of these antelopes.

Remember it isn’t a small 4 x 4m cage, it is a huge 42ha grassland where prey can escape from their predators.

Posted by PT Heng Siang Wei | Report as abusive

The SPCA has a very narrow minded agenda and, hence, are completely off the deep end on this one. I think they need to revamp themselves and have a change of leadership as, obviously, they have stagnated idealogically and have not kept up with the realities of conservation today. I also hope the courts have evolved enough to realize the silliness of the SPCA’s argument.

Posted by JF | Report as abusive

The Animal Welfare society is missing the point of this project in the first place. The prey animals are there to teach the Tigers how to hunt and they are in a fenced-in area where they can have a fighting chance against the tigers. What they are doing is a heck alot better than how some people ‘teach’ tigers how to hunt.

Some people just throw out livestock in a unfair environment and let the tigers attack them in a pitiful way and manner. And they’re doing this to entertain people. not for conservation and such. If they are doing it for conservation, they should use wild animals and use a more appropriate techniques to teach tigers to hunt and be wild.

Posted by Poncho Firewalker | Report as abusive